The Wing Orderly’s Tales
Carlo Gébler’s new collection of short stories is an authoritative portrayal of life and death in a Northern Ireland jail
Irish readers tend to have a skewed and romanticised notion of prison life. Most of the landmark jail journals of the 20th century – Peadar O’Donnell’s The Gates Flew Open, Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy and Danny Morrison’s Then The Walls Came Down – are underscored with optimism, redemption and belief in a greater world. They emanate kinship, kindness and camaraderie. And they ultimately vindicate a position that, if we are determined in our principles, we can overcome even the most corrupt and corrupting of systems.
But the reality of jail for the non-idealist, the hopeless and the broken is a different thing entirely. It is lonely, dangerous and inhumane. And it is this purposeless, soul-crushing world which Gébler, who has spent more than twenty years educating serving prisoners and ex-cons across the North, so authoritatively portrays.
Harold ‘Chalky’ Chalkman, our Wing Orderly narrator throughout the twelve stories, occasionally acts as redemptive force for Gébler against the machine. But his efforts can never be more than short-term and futile. His primary concern, like everyone else’s, is self-preservation, after which there is little time to worry about the other guy.
Chalky immediately endears himself to us in the opening story ‘New Boy’ by revealing that he is in for assaulting a police officer with a brick – a clear class above the majority lowlife kiddie-fiddlers, drug dealers and wife-killers, who infest ‘HMP Loanend’. He is appointed an orderly – a relatively prestigious and powerful position in jail (in as much as prisoners can have any power) – because he refuses all outside visits and thus isn’t in a position to smuggle either contraband or information.
From the off, Chalky’s intelligence and love of books gives him an advantage over his fellow cons. He knows the power of information. And he is also a skilled reader of people, sizing up one senior warden in seconds:
His eyes were abnormally blue. In my experience, megalomaniacs usually have very blue eyes. I was going to have to watch this one.
Chalky attempts to remain sympathetic to the prisoners around him but he is acutely aware of the dangers of getting involved in their lives. In ‘Eskimo’, he watches helplessly as two amoral lifers, Red Ken and Tiny, known as ‘the Evil Twins’, target his friend over a drug debt. Over time, they steal Eskimo’s possessions, force him to perform sexual favours for them, and finally, after they have wrung all they can out of him, they have him killed.
The Twins work the system to the letter and re-emerge into other stories as a dark force, blackmailing, bullying and destroying lives. Even when they are not physically present, the fear of them remains.
Horror is piled upon all-too-real horror. One prisoner, who fails to take part in a protest, is deliberately scalded with boiling mop-water mixed with sugar – to ensure it sticks to his skin. He ends up locked away in a psych ward, while his aggressors are cheered back onto the wing as heroes. Another unfortunate, who messes up a drug deal, loses his stomach after being fed ground glass. None of this reads remotely like fiction.
While Loanend’s screws are occasionally compassionate, others are boorish and superior. And even the best of them are worn down in the end. In the story ‘SC’, the authorities launch an enquiry after a vulnerable prisoner commits suicide one night, while officers supposedly supervising him are sleeping. (This echoes a similar, real-life incident in Maghaberry Prison in 2008, which led to a number of prison officers being suspended from duty.) But the fair-minded Hayes, who Chalky describes as ‘one of the nicer Day screws’, excuses his colleagues’ negligence, arguing that the fault-lines are systemic. He points out that even if everyone had been awake when they should have, it still would have taken too long to unlock the victim’s cell.
Perhaps the most telling story of the dozen, and the one that speaks most comprehensively to all that is wrong with the penal system, is ‘Engine’. Here, a Sri Lankan engineer attempts suicide and ends up in jail after accidentally wounding his ex-partner, who’s trying to stop him. A kind and gentle individual, Engine is a practicing Buddhist, who jokes that his religion could save the North from bigotry. His openness, however, lands him in jeopardy when the Evil Twins befriend him and then coerce him into making weaponry for them. Later, when Chalky meets him, after he has served a spell on the Punishment Block for his pains, he is shocked at how hardened and walled-off his friend has become.
Engine explains that he has had to adapt to be accepted:
‘Surely you of all people must understand?’ he said. ‘You put on a mask and you keep it on and then what happens? After a while your skin and the inside of the mask grow together. They become one. And once that happens, you can’t take the mask off again, not without pulling your face away with it and obviously you can’t do that. So you are stuck, with the mask. It is now your face.’
Education, while not a silver bullet, provides considerable relief for Chalky and his fellow inmates. It is an escape from the mundane and offers the promise of a better life. Author Gébler, more than anyone, knows the value, if not necessity, of this work. Six in ten of the prison population do not meet the most basic literacy and numeracy levels. So, it is particularly dispiriting in this collection when we see education being withheld as a punishment for misdemeanours, or restricted to a privilege for those who can behave in an educated way. And yet again, we are left wondering how much of what is laid out here is fictitious.
Carlo Gébler deserves great credit for his work in the North’s prisons – as he does now for sharing his experiences, albeit through fiction, in this book. It is a brutal indictment of a loveless system, which is itself the product of an uncaring society.
Be warned however, that this is the type of book you will want to have a shower after reading, in case any of it might stay with you. But it is also a book that should be read by everyone.